Among Jane Austen’s books, Pride and Prejudice is my favourite, with Persuasion following not too far behind. It is not only that I find these two books the most romantic of Jane Austen’s stories, but that I think the main characters of both stories have such depth to them. Every time I read these books, I find new things I love about these characters. In one of my previous posts I wrote about Mr. Darcy and Captain Wentworth when I discussed their letters. But today, I want to talk about the heroines of these two books and why I have so much respect for them.
Though very different in temperament, Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot are both critical of the inequalities women face in their society and, in their conversations with other characters, we can see evidence of their feminist ideas.
Elizabeth is clearly the more outspoken of the two. Using her own blend of playfulness and humor, she condemns society’s harsh dictates for women and questions how femininity is understood and measured by others. Her famous conversation with Mr. Darcy regarding the attributes of an accomplished lady is a perfect example of how she challenges her society’s unfair and unrealistic notions of women.
“I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united.”
The fact that she has this conversation with a gentleman whose position in life is much higher than hers, by rank and by wealth, speaks to her strength of character and her conviction in her argument. Later, during her refusal of Mr. Colin’s proposal, Elizabeth demands to be respected as a woman of sense and reason.
“You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say.”
Her arguments, though completely wasted on Mr. Colins, show a feminist perspective that sets her apart from other female characters in the book. She asks for autonomy and to be allowed to choose and decide for herself.
“Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart.”
Elizabeth challenges the idealized view of women and demands to be respected as a person who can think, speak and act rationally. One of my all-time favourite scenes is the conversation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine.
“I am only resolved to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected to me.”
I can easily imagine a young modern woman saying such words. Elizabeth knows herself and knows what makes her happy. Her insistence on being an autonomous person who can think and decide on her own is what appeals to the modern reader.
I see strong similarities between Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet’s characters. Though Anne may not be as outspoken as Elizabeth, when she does speak, she shows such great insight and strength of character. This is very evident in her conversation with Captain Harville. He argues,
“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy.”
“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
Anne’s argument is clever and quite telling of her position. She not only does not accept the argument the captain makes against women, she challenges the very reasons why such arguments were permitted at that time. She gets to the root of the problem when she speaks of the unfair conditions that lead to the misrepresentation and mistreatment of women. Gentlemen enjoyed privileges that women did not. Higher education was a luxury that was only afforded to gentlemen and they had command over the contents of books as they did with so many other things. Anne dismisses such books that misrepresent women and questions the system that supports inequality in her society.
I’ve always felt that Anne Elliot is the more mature version of Elizabeth Bennet. Where Elizabeth questions people’s opinions and their behaviour, Anne gently points out the underlying reasons for such opinion and behaviour.
Inspired by these two amazing women, in my second novel, To Love and Cherish, I wrote Georgiana Darcy as a young woman who challenges her society’s unfair and unequal treatment of women. Like her brother, she is well-read and has strong convictions. But she also has liberal ideas that do not always sit well with others. Most men of her station prefer obedient women with no opinion of their own. But Georgiana demands respect and autonomy. It takes a strong and confident man, who understands and respects her opinions, to win her heart and her hand.
The following excerpt from To Love and Cherish is part of a conversation between Georgiana and two gentlemen while they are staying at Pemberley. I will leave it up to you to decide which gentleman is more worthy of her attention and regard.
“I am, as you can imagine,” Lord Barton said, “an avid reader of Greek philosophy. But I am not very familiar with ideas from the Orient. Are you particularly interested in them yourself, Miss Darcy?”
Pleased by his interest, she said, “I confess, I am not a big follower of either the Greeks or the Oriental philosophies.”
“You intrigue me, Miss Darcy! Is it possible that you disagree with Plato or Socrates? Surely you must concede that their notions of ethics and justice are what our society is founded upon.”
Lord Paisley and Colonel Fitzwilliam joined them.
“I would not say that I disagree with their notions of justice,” Georgiana said.
“Perhaps you are in sympathy with Locke or Rousseau. Are you more in agreement with their thoughts?”
“No, sir. I am not particularly in sympathy with Locke or Rousseau. Why should I be? None of them seem to include women in their descriptions of justice and society.”
“Surely, you cannot mean that!” Lord Barton said. “I recommend you read Rousseau more closely. I am persuaded you will find that a great deal of what he says pertains to the role of women in society.”
“When I say that women are not included,” Georgiana said, shaking her head, “I mean that their opinion is not included. Women, in his view, are not required to think for themselves. They are encouraged to behave in a manner which does not require them nor encourage them to think.”
“Well, is that not how gentlewomen are raised? They are taught to behave according to the rules of society. When gently-bred women behave according to the dictates of society, there is no need to think much on the matter, is there?” said Lord Barton.
“But I think—”
“I must confess,” Lord Paisley interrupted in a lazy tone, “I am quite bored with this conversation. Now, Miss Darcy, will you show us the picture gallery? I am particularly interested to see if I can trace Darcy’s good looks to his ancestors.”
He stepped closer and offered his arm to Miss Darcy, who had no choice but to take it. She was utterly speechless, shocked, and disappointed by Lord Paisley’s rude interruption and his blatant disregard for her opinion.
She fumed inwardly as they exited the library and walked toward the staircase.
“A word of advice, Miss Darcy,” Lord Paisley whispered for her ears alone. “It is ill-advised to express all of your political ideas to a young man whom you do not know well enough.”
They began climbing the grand staircase.
“Because my opinions may differ from yours—”
“You do not know anything about my opinions, my dear girl. And neither do you know those of Lord Barton’s.”
“He was, at least, willing to listen to my arguments. He understands the proper etiquettes of discourse.”
“Proper etiquette of discourse?” Lord Paisley repeated with sarcasm. “Are you referring to how he listened to you condescendingly? Is that the etiquette you are referring to, Miss Darcy?”
Georgiana colored at his harsh words. They had reached the top of the stairs now and began walking through the long hall toward the picture gallery.
“He appeared genuinely interested in what I had to say!” Georgiana hissed.
“He is a politician, Miss Darcy. He always appears genuinely interested in what others have to say.”
“Why did you interrupt me as you did? Do my ideas and opinions shock you?”
“Shock me?” Lord Paisley asked with a crooked smile. “Not particularly. You are not the first young lady who has something more significant to say than the state of the weather. Although, I have to admit, you are perhaps the youngest young lady I have ever encountered who has read and understood the works of Mary Wollstonecraft.”
“How did I know?” Lord Paisley asked. “My dear, Miss Darcy! I may appear to be a dull fellow most of the time, but pray, do not write me down as a slow-top. I know what I am about, and permit me to say that I know what you are about. I noticed ‘A Vindication’ had several marked pages. I can only assume you have read it numerous times.”
Georgiana looked at him with no little astonishment. Before she could think of a response, they entered the gallery hall and Georgiana was obliged to separate from him to introduce some of the people in the paintings to Lord Barton. But at the first opportunity, she drew near to Lord Paisley again.
“Why did you interrupt me then?” she whispered. “Was it because my ideas were too much against your own? Did you feel my arguments would cause injury to your notions of decorum?”
“Oho!” Lord Paisley laughed. “Cause injury to my notions of decorum? Do I appear to you to be such a sad fellow to be injured by your liberal notions on the rights of the female sex?”
“You do understand!” she exclaimed, smiling despite herself.
“Try not to sound so surprised, Miss Darcy,” Lord Paisley said gravely, his eyes, however, full of mirth. “Of course I understand. I too have read Miss Wollstonecraft’s works and will even venture to agree with many of her arguments.”
“Is this your grandfather, Miss Darcy?” Lord Barton interrupted their conversation, pointing at a painting.
“Yes, sir. This is Alexander Darcy, my father’s father.”
“He appears to be quite an imposing figure,” Lord Barton commented. “And very handsome, indeed.”
“My brother is believed to resemble him greatly.”
“But you do not. In fact, you do not resemble any of your paternal ancestors.”
“I am believed to have taken after my maternal family,” Georgiana said.
“Hence her close resemblance to me,” Colonel Fitzwilliam said jovially. “But you must see my late aunt’s portrait. You will see the uncanny resemblance between her and her daughter.”
“Please, lead the way, Miss Darcy,” Lord Barton urged.
“My mother’s portrait is beside my father’s.” Georgiana pointed in the direction of the said portraits. She then fell into step with Lord Paisley again. “I had hoped…that is…I was certain…that…” Georgiana seemed too embarrassed to finish her thoughts.
“Go on,” Lord Paisley said with a knowing smile.
“When you interrupted me as you did, I was disappointed. You are, I am convinced, a very well-informed man. I could not understand why you would end our conversation, unless…unless you considered my thoughts inconsequential.”
“You are correct, Colonel,” Lord Barton said once again distracting Georgiana from her conversation with Lord Paisley. “Miss Darcy resembles her mother in every way.”
“Not in every way, surely,” Lord Paisley said as he stared at the portrait of the late Mrs. Darcy. “Miss Darcy has indeed inherited her mother’s beauty, but I believe she is different from her mother in disposition.”
“Did you know my mother, my lord?” Georgiana asked him with surprise.
Lord Paisley shook his head. “I never had that pleasure. But I had the pleasure of making your late father’s acquaintance, and although you do not resemble him in looks, I can see similarities in the turn of your minds.”
“That is what Fitzwilliam tells me as well.” She smiled with pleasure. “Shall we continue our tour on another day and return to the drawing room, gentlemen? I find I am in need of some refreshment.”
Lord Barton and Colonel Fitzwilliam fell into step ahead of the two. Lord Paisley drew closer to Georgiana.
“It is not my habit to interrupt people’s sensible conversations, Miss Darcy,” Lord Paisley said softly. “And I do not believe your arguments inconsequential. It was neither the content of the conversation, nor your arguments that decided my actions. Rather, it was the audience.”
“Do you not believe Lord Barton a suitable audience for such conversation?”
“I do not know the gentleman well enough to judge him. However, as you are about to enjoy your first season this year, it will not do for you to encourage negative attention by disclosing too much of your ideas with people you do not know.”
“Do you believe my ideas to be too revolutionary then?” Georgiana asked with an impish smile.
“Not for me.” Lord Paisley shrugged. “But you will learn, my dear Miss Darcy, that we live in a very unforgiving society.”
“I do not relish the idea of performing for the sake of society,” Georgiana said, holding up her chin in a petulant manner.
“You are much like your brother, you know?” Lord Paisley chuckled.
“Proud?” Georgiana asked, her blue eyes challenging him.
“Spoiled,” he replied with a crooked smile.
Georgiana laughed, displaying her dimples. “How very ungallant of you, sir! You provoke me so much; I fear we can never be friends.”
“I fear you may be correct, Miss Darcy.”